At Eugene Peterson’s funeral, his son Leif said his dad had only one message. It was a message “whispered in his heart for 50 years, words he had snuck into his room to say over him as he slept as a child: ‘God loves you. God is on your side. He is coming after you. He is relentless.’”
There is no expiration date on words like that. Their shelf life is long, and their influence is strong.
Are there any memorable sayings from a family member, friend, teacher, or an influential mentor you’ve kept over the years? Maybe it was a nugget of wisdom or pithy proverb. It could be an endearing nickname, or a funny saying the family laughs about whenever someone repeats it. Or maybe there was an annoying response from a parent that you vowed never to say but catch yourself reciting (e.g., “Because I said so!”).
Perhaps one of your pastors has a few phrases they reiterate. My former pastor, TGC Council member Mark Vroegop, often said, “Hard is hard, but hard is not bad.” My current pastor, Chris Beals, likes to say, “Your feelings are real and important, but they can’t be authoritative.” These sentences not only stuck with me, but they’ve also shaped churches. When someone walks through a trial or gets trapped in the vicious cycle of deceptive emotions, these words ring in their ears.
We underestimate the power of words, both in the moment and also down the road (see Prov. 18:20–21). Words don’t always go away. They lodge in nooks and crannies of our brain and return to us when we need them most, maybe years or decades later.
Weight of Words
One of the valuable lessons in Wendell Berry’s short novel Remembering is the lasting power of words. The story is a back-and-forth narrative, conveying how our past and present intertwine.
Remembering tells the story of a single day from 1976 in the life of a middle-aged man named Andy Catlett. He’s far from home, an exile and stranger in his spirit, mind, and relationships. He wanders the streets of San Francisco, empty, regretful, and angry. What jars Andy to life and offers a ray of hope are words inscribed on his memory. Not only do the people of his past shape him, but their words awaken him out of his stupor like a splash of cold water.
Andy reminisces on words heard from Elton Penn “a thousand times” as they worked together. Elton picked up the words years before from Jack Beechum. In a close community, words pass from one member to another, preserved and handled with care, binding them together:
Elton’s mind had been, in part, a convocation of the voices of predecessors. . . . When he would tell Andy, “If you’re going to talk to me, you’ll have to walk,” it would not be just the two of them talking and listening, but Old Jack would be saying it again to Mat, and Mat to his son-in-law Wheeler, Andy’s father, and Wheeler to Elton, and Elton to Andy all the times before; and an old understanding and an old laughter would renew itself then, and be with them.
Later on, as Andy nears the crossroads of his lowest-low and stands on the brink of transformation, an unbidden prayer from his past comes to him. “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD” (Ps. 130:1). He had heard this petition heard from his grandmother and had stowed itself away deep in his heart. At the right moment, it made its way to the surface: though he did not think of her, the words come to him in his grandmother’s voice.
Her repeated prayers stayed with him. They’re part of him, not just part of his past.
A few pages later, Andy returns to a precious moment from his childhood with his grandmother, Dorie. Wrapped up in the experience was a lesson about choosing the better way in life, even as many others around them walk down a wider, more populated road:
She looks down at him, and smiles, and then suddenly pulls his head against her, “Oh, my boy, how far away will you be sometime, remembering this?” In this moment, as the darkness of night gives way to the dawning sun, he realizes he’s crying.
Words spoken to Andy as a child whisper to him as an adult, and now he’s wise enough to listen. Andy’s remembering is more than a sweet memory, a treasure by itself. Her words, planted like a seed long ago, sprout in due season with the fruit of wisdom, comfort, and love. What a gift, packaged in plain but powerful words.
Words can be cheap. We’re quick to give our opinion and hasty to share our unbaked thoughts. Berry’s Remembering forces us to ask questions about what kind of words we want to be known for or pass on.
Does your speech build up or tear down? Is it full of grace and the gospel? What words, phrases, or truths do you want to shape your church, family, friends, neighbors, or coworkers? What will be the message you preach from the grave?
I’m still wrestling with these questions. But I’ve tried one thing since first reading the story of Eugene Peterson whispering words about God’s relentless love into his son’s ears. As I tuck my 2-year-old daughter into bed, I regularly repeat to her a simple mantra: “God loves you. He is with you. He is for you. We love you. We are with you. We are for you.”
I hope to speak many more things into her life, but I pray God will one day stir these words of his love and our love within her. There will be days I won’t be near or times I’m unable to speak to her, but our words outlive us. They might just be the most lasting part of our legacy.